Skip to main content

Cruising from New Orleans to Key West

If there’s a reason that Gulf Coast cruising is not much talked about, I can’t tell you what it is. Three friends and I spent a month this past summer exploring the towns and marine parks of the Gulf shores under sail and found more than a few reasons to talk about it.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
    Original:

If there’s a reason that Gulf Coast cruising is not much talked about, I can’t tell you what it is. Three friends and I spent a month this past summer exploring the towns and marine parks of the Gulf shores under sail and found more than a few reasons to talk about it.

This trip was my first long sail in many years, and the first I’ve made on my own boat. After two years of hard work and restoration, my Cape Dory 28 was finally ready to sail, and I had no trouble rounding up a crew. We set off from New Orleans in early May, heading to the Florida Keys in a series of offshore jumps.

We planned to hurry through, having judged the northern Gulf coast before we saw it. Judging from the charts, the area appeared monotonous: it lacked the dramatic landscapes of the Atlantic East Coast and the sandy isles of the Caribbean. Then there was the oil. America no longer talks much about history’s worst oil spill, but it is still on the minds of the locals. I was worried about what we might see, and afraid that the coasts would be so peppered with rigs—charted and uncharted, active and abandoned—as to turn navigation into a sort of high-stakes guessing game.

What we found was very different. Even at night the rigs didn’t prove much of a navigational hazard, though there was one apocalyptic morning when we sailed past a rig that crouched over the sea like a giant spider, literally spouting fire into a red dawn. And these waters are teeming with life. We caught tuna and king mackerel and watched pods of dolphins play in our bow wave; sharks swam languid circles around us when we were adrift in a calm, and there were occasional glimpses of timid sea turtles.

The landfalls were another pleasant surprise. Western Florida is particularly beautiful, and completely unlike the rest of the state. Along with the extensive National Parks System, for which the state is famous, a scattering of picturesque small towns present a welcome contrast to the high-rise cityscapes of south Florida.

Our favorite town was Tarpon Springs, a lovely piece of Americana with a living waterfront and a very unusual history. Long before there was Scotch-Brite, natural sponges were harvested from the seafloor, and Tarpon Springs was the largest sponge port in the United States. This industry was almost exclusively the domain of Greek immigrants, who were recruited for their diving skills. Hundreds came to fish for sponges, and in the process they transformed the town.

These days a little commercial sponge fishing remains, but tourism reigns as the main industry. The sponge-fever can get a bit heavy-handed, with sponge boat tours, sponge museums and sponge warehouses, but the history is interesting, and the lovingly restored fishing boats are quite impressive. Scattered throughout town are dozens of excellent Greek restaurants and bakeries, as well as a majestically gilded Greek Orthodox church.

Farther down the coast is Florida’s hidden cruising gem: the Everglades National Park. The park itself isn’t exactly low profile, but many people don’t realize you can sail there. The vast majority of the park is too shallow for keelboats, but there are memorable exceptions.

Just north of Cape Sable, for example, is a well-marked channel into Little Shark River with minimum low-water depths of six feet. This mangrove-lined channel winds upriver for five miles before opening out into Oyster Bay. The bay has no markers and quite a few shoals, but its tangle of mangrove islets makes for great dinghy exploration. These swamps are the ocean’s great fish hatchery, and they are teeming with life. The easy fishing attracts thousands of birds, and the seagrass is home to Florida’s most beloved mammal, the manatee. Although the manatees themselves proved elusive, we saw hawks, herons and dozens of snowy egrets fishing among the mangroves. There was more wildlife and fewer people here than anywhere else I’ve sailed in the United States.

Better still, although Everglades National Park may be the largest protected area on the Gulf coast, it is only one of many. Florida alone has nearly 10 million acres managed for conservation, many of which are in marine parks.

Particularly beautiful, we discovered, are the handful of barrier islands that run along the Gulf coast, which have great anchorages and endless opportunities for exploration. The protection they offer from the open Gulf of Mexico also makes for excellent sailing along the ICW. Whenever the hustle and bustle of the area’s town and the powerboat traffic along the ICW got to be too much, we would pick out a nearby protected area on the chart and escape into some of America’s most impressive natural landscape.

In the fact, despite our original plan to make a straight-line track to our ultimate destination, we found so many arresting vistas in the swamps and islets of the Northern Gulf that we barely made the Keys in time for my crew to get home to their other commitments. Somehow, I don’t think they were disappointed.

Paul Calder just sailed from New Orleans to Maine.

He kicked off his winter with a delivery from

Annapolis to the Caribbean


Photos courtesy of Paul Calder; map by Isa Pagani

Related

01-LEAD-Ancients-3-2048x

Cruising Lake Superior

Almost anywhere a sailor drops the hook someone else has been there before. We are hardly ever the first. That remote Maine harbor without a soul in sight: there’s a lobster trap. The south coast of Newfoundland: the crumbling remains of a fisherman’s cabin lie hidden among the ...read more

01-LEAD-Tablet-Holder-4

Fabricating a Tablet Holder

During the pandemic, I was stuck aboard Guiding Light, a Lagoon 410, in St. Lucia for over a month. During that time, as I worked on the boat, I started by doing a spring cleaning in my spares locker and finding some parts and material that I forgot I had. As soon as I saw them, ...read more

00-LEAD-AdobeStock_486335954

A Catamaran for a New Era

Anacortes, Washington, is an unassuming sea-salty town near the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound, and the Betts Boats yard is easy for a passerby to miss. But within Betts’ facilities, the dawn of an era in Pacific Northwest production boatbuilding could be breaking with the ...read more

X5_plus_slide-01

Boat Review: Xquisite X5 Plus

The Xquisite X5 Plus is a major update of the boat that SAIL awarded Best Large Multihull and Best Systems titles in 2017. The changes were not just cosmetic, but genuine improvements to an already fine boat, making it lighter, faster and less dependent on fuel. The builder’s ...read more

01-LEAD-AdobeStock_40632434

Cruising: Offshore Prep Talk

When I began preparing Minx, my 1987 Pearson 39-2, for extended Caribbean cruising, I had to balance my champagne wish list against my beer budget. Every buck spent on the boat before leaving would be one less frosty can of Carib down in the islands. On the other hand, I had to ...read more

m5702_RACE-AREA-6

Barcelona Venue Shaping Up

The decision to host the next America’s Cup in Barcelona ruffled the feathers of some fans, but the Defender is happy with how the venue is shaping up. The process of allocating team bases, spectator zones and the race village is underway. “I cannot speak highly enough of the ...read more

ELAN-GT6---273

Boat Review: Elan GT6

Elan’s first sporty “Grand Turismo” yacht, the 43ft GT5, launched in 2017, and was actually a bit of a mash-up. It combined an existing go-fast hull from Elan’s sexy E5 racer with a new deck and interior optimized for cruising comfort, and a somewhat detuned rig to create a ...read more

OVI-Gyre-22_KH_Crew-clean-deck-and-catch-nets_260622-11

Ocean Voyages Institute Recovers Nearly 100 tons of Plastic Waste

After 45 days at sea, the sailing cargo ship KWAI has docked in San Francisco with 96 tons of recovered plastic, including ghost nets and derelict fishing gear from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Ocean Voyages Institute, a non-profit organization based in Sausalito, CA, uses ...read more